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”Erlkönige“ prototype cars and the art of deception

3 min reading time

”Erlkönige“ are true masters of camouflage.

Find out where the German word ”Erlkönige“ comes from and learn about the history of the camo car wrap.

1 August 2018

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The origin of the dazzle pattern

British artist Norman Wilkinson was serving in the Royal Navy in 1918 when he had an idea on how to disguise warships to protect himself and his comrades from enemy projectiles. While it was not possible to completely hide a ship from enemy submarines, Wilkinson was able to create a new way to confuse their perception of a ship’s size, speed and travel direction. He called this method “dazzle camouflage”. Approximately 4,000 dazzle ships were commissioned and used until the end of WWI – an achievement which earned Wilkinson both fame and honour, although there was no tangible proof of the camouflage’s advantage.


Why do Germans call a prototype car an ”Erlkönige“?

BMW Erlkönig mit KreismusterBMW Erlkönig mit Kreismuster

In the 1950s, German automotive journalists Heinz-Ulrich Wieselmann and Werner Oswald published – without permission – snapshots of prototype cars in a major automotive magazine: “auto, motor und sport”. It created a small sensation, and was considered something of an insult to the manufacturers. It was the first time that a large audience, including competitors, was able to see pictures of unannounced vehicles. They published these pictures in a special column, which they named ”Erlkönige“.

Heckansicht eines BMW ErlkönigsHeckansicht eines BMW Erlkönigs

The name ”Erlkönige“ stuck, and it became synonymous with prototype cars or so-called development mules. The term was taken from a poem of the same name by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The title of the poem, ”Der Erlkönige“, is sometimes translated as “The Erlking”. The journalists changed the first line of the poem from “Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear?” (Edgar Alfred Bowring’s translation) to “Who drives there so fast through rain and wind?” Ever since, manufacturers have worked hard to camouflage their “Erlkings” to confuse both journalists and competitors, making it hard for them to gain early information about the design and technology when undesired pictures are taken. In order to hide the external form of their vehicles, the automotive industry adopted camouflage that was similar to the WWI dazzle ships.

A typical Erlkönig is camouflaged on all surfaces


With so many smartphones equipped with high-definition cameras, it is now much easier and much more common than just a few years ago for development mules to be caught on camera. Manufacturers are therefore using an ever-shifting range of creative new camouflage car wraps to foil such attempts.

BMW spy shots – caught in the act

Before and after: the BMW M5

The dazzle pattern rules the waves

Surfer mit Anzug und Surfbrett im Erlkönigstil

Dazzle camouflage not only keeps cars from being recognized. The same patterns on a surfboard or wetsuit can protect surfers from shark attacks.

Schuhe mit Erlkönig-Muster

Designers of other products have also joined the trend of using the dazzle camouflage. And now we have come full circle: 100 years after the British artist Norman Wilkinson created the design, it is now being used by modern designers once again. It stands as further proof that good design is always timeless.

M PerformanceM Performance


The BMW M5 with M xDrive.

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